The statement that “There are things we don’t know we don’t know” is attributed to Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defence in the George W Bush administration. It has become so well known that it now has an entry in the Urban Dictionary, but folk have attributed several different meanings to it. The honourable Rumsfeld used it when trying to describe the complexity of state intelligence, but I have something else entirely in mind.
What People Knew… then
The Lord Jesus walked on Earth two thousand years ago and interacted with people mostly from Jewish religious and cultural backgrounds. Many of the things He said and did must have been easily understandable to them, but to us, they are often ambiguous and mysterious. We just do not know the cultural and religious contexts of some of the things He said or the acts He performed: we don’t know what we don’t know. This is why we need to research and inform ourselves so that we can discern the first intended meaning. We need to ask and answer the question, ‘what did the people of that day understand by this?’
A Jesus-centred Example
The best way for me to explain what I mean is to give a concrete example. A few days ago, I was reading the account in John Chapter Six of how Jesus fed 5,000 men, and who knows how many women and children, with just five small barley loaves and two tiny fish. They all ate their fill and the disciples gathered up 12 baskets full of bread left-overs. Then verses 14 and 15 record that, ‘After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself’.
Who was The Prophet?
Now why, I asked myself, would they think that Jesus was ‘the Prophet who is to come into the world’? Most commentaries skip over this, but some tell us that the Rabbis pointed out that Moses had promised that a great saviour would arise in Israel. His exact words were: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Well, OK, but why would the people associate the miracle of multiplied bread with Moses’s statement?
Bread from Heaven
When Moses was leading the people through the wilderness, God had said to him that He Himself would feed the people and the very next morning the Manna appeared on the ground (Exodus 16:11-16). In the same chapter of John’s Gospel that I was reading, Jesus referred to this miraculous provision and told His audience that, “it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world… I am the bread of life” (John 6:32-35).
Something Still Missing
So far so good, but something was missing for me and I had the nagging feeling that I still didn’t know what I didn’t know. Probably the best-known prophet in Israel was Elijah, but there was one other who trumped his great ministry, Elisha the great man’s assistant and successor and the man who did twice as many miracles as Elijah (Double Anointing). So, I scanned through the biblical account of his life and works until I came to 2 Kings 4:42-44, which reads:
‘A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. “Give it to the people to eat,” Elisha said. “How can I set this before a hundred men?” his servant asked. But Elisha answered, “Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the Lord says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.'” Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the Lord’.
A Light-bulb Moment
Ah-ha! A light-bulb moment! So, the people of Jesus’ day would have seen Him performing a miraculous sign similar to but greater than Elisha’s. The ancient prophet fed 100 people with 20 small loaves of barley bread – Jesus fed 5,000 plus with just five! Elisha performed the miracle through the hands of his disciples and so did Jesus. Elisha predicted that there would be left-overs and Jesus instructed His disciples to gather up the left-overs, all twelve baskets full (representing all 12 tribes of Israel). However, Elisha multiplied the bread five times and Jesus multiplied it one thousand times. Wow! No wonder, the people whom Jesus fed thought that He was The Prophet whom Moses had predicted would come into the world and whom the great prophet Elisha had foreshadowed.
The Fuller Answer
Now I had my answer to the question of what the people of Jesus’ day would have understood by what Jesus said and did. But I had more than this; I had a deep and awe-inspiring knowledge of just how comprehensively the Lord Jesus had fulfilled the Old Testament scriptures. He had said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt 5:17-18). He meant what He said, for He really did ‘know what He did know’.
What we Need to Know
To more fully appreciate the glorious supremacy of the Lord Jesus and the wonderfully detailed testimony of the bible, we need to know two things. We need to know that there are things we don’t yet know, and we need to know that the Holy Spirit will reveal what we do not know if we diligently search the scriptures.